September 2021

Closer Look: India Telegraph Stamps


In the early days of philately, telegraph stamps were considered to be pretty much on a par with postage stamps and were collected, as a matter of course, alongside postal issues. Walter Morley published a catalogue of telegraph stamps in 1900; however, with the passage of years and the general cessation of new issues, they gradually became a sideline for the general collector. Two things happened to change that; firstly, the publication of Dr Steve Hiscocks’ catalogue in 1982, which made the sleeping giant turn over in bed, if not wake up, and the second event the listing of telegraphs in Stanley Gibbons’ Part 1 catalogue in 2013.


The Indian telegraph system was, of necessity, massive and unwieldy. It became desirable that adhesive stamps should be used and kept separate from the postal accounting system and so the 'Electric Telegraph' issue was born (‘Indica’ lots 1-20). Modelled on current British revenue stamps, they broke new ground; the world's first telegraph stamps, in 1860. The head was engraved by Ferdinand Joubert and the surrounds by De La Rue staff artists. Imprimaturs, proofs and Specimens were made and are rare. Issued stamps are just as rare. Used stamps were to be written on, punched with holes at the Check Office and then destroyed by fire. However, very few stamps were actually used, their issue being hedged about with bureaucracy to the extent that Col. Robinson (the Director of Telegraphs) was able to state that 'The extent to which they have been used may be stated as practically nil, in fact..... they have been declared a complete failure.' Robinson was convinced that if less controlled, adhesive stamps were still the way forward.


No reprint of the Electric Telegraph stamps was ever made and they were withdrawn in 1869, some to be destroyed and some for use overprinted COURT FEE, to be replaced by a Double-Head issue, largely of Col. Robinson's devising (lots 21-142, 171-241). The stamps were designed to be torn in half when used, the top half remaining attached to the receipt portion. The double-head concept, developed by the indefatigable Colonel himself (his rough sketches still exist), was to protect the Monarch from the indignity of having her image regularly and disrespectfully torn in half. We are most fortunate that a considerable number of letters regarding the issue, written by Col. Robinson to Warren De La Rue, have survived, together with his own preliminary sketches and commentaries on De La Rue's progress. Many may be seen in the 'Indica' collection. What Warren De La Rue must have thought of such frequent and nit-picking missives is probably best left to the imagination.


The preparations for the new issue were actually made in 1866, but bureaucracy being it is - together with some boxes of stamps being damaged in transit, and waiting for Col. Robinson to return from England - the new stamps were not issued until 1869. The issue is complex and rewarding, with eight initial values (five of which were re-engraved) and four later additional values. Until 1882 they were watermarked with a Crown over 'INDIA', with 'INDIA' relatively wide-set. A splendid story can be drawn from the limited number of proofs, drawings and correspondence available, augmented by reference to the material in the Royal Collection, which has 62 pages devoted to the issue, including much emanating from Col. Robinson's personal collection. Bi-colour stamps were considered and rejected, largely on grounds of cost, although essays (probably by the artist Owen Jones) exist.

Some of the values are very scarce in mint condition and many are less than perfect, due to the exigencies of the climate and the ravages of time. Whole used stamps, preserved by chance, are never less than scarce and in some cases unknown - lower halves should have all been destroyed, but some survive. There are a few varieties, such as inverted watermarks; the 8a and 1r Die I exist imperforate,

the 8a having been issued at Colombo. (Other imperforate stamps, unused on unwatermarked paper, are Plate Proofs).

Tariff changes in 1881 meant that there were shortages of low values, and fiscal stamps were surcharged to make up the numbers required until new supplies arrived (lots 143-170). Surcharges were applied at Calcutta, Bombay and Madras in different fonts and sizes; Part 1 provides a good summary, although experience suggests that the prices quoted may be on the conservative side. The new watermark stamps in 1882, showing the Crown redrawn and 'INDIA' notably tall and narrow, are somewhat more readily available than their predecessors, although whole stamps remain very scarce (and in strong demand)


In 1889 the then Director-General of Telegraphs, Col. Mallock (following on the fine tradition of Col. Robinson), suggested that the fact that the upper and lower halves of the double-head design were so similar led to the possibility of fraud. In his turn he prepared a series of sketches, which are preserved in the Indica collection (lot 211), and rather good they are too. A noted Revenue specialist has commented that they are, indeed, superior to De La Rue's relatively-uninspired offerings, which duly appeared in 1890, with the top halves incorporating either the value or 'Govt. of India' (lots 212/13).


In 1899 it became evident that there was a need for a 2r stamp to replace the 2½r value in use up until then (lots 242-284). Provisional surcharges were made on the 2½r or overprinted on a Foreign Bill stamp; some varieties exist. The 2r yellow, which appeared in the following year, was in an entirely unsuitable colour (described by Stewart-Wilson and Crofton as 'pale primrose') which for all practical purposes was invisible under artificial light. To mitigate the problems a red line was drawn across the base (at Madras and Bombay) or printed there (at Calcutta).


Not surprisingly, for the Edwardian issue (lots 285-353) of 1904 the colour of the 2r was changed to brown-orange. The new portrait meant that there was no problem with identifying lower halves of the new issue, but upper halves were not distinguishable from the 1890 design unless the Crown could be seen. A further reduction in tariffs, early in 1904, meant another group of provisional surcharges, this time 1a on the 4r Foreign Bill, 2a on the 8a brown and 4a on the 1r grey. There are some good varieties of the surcharge. In addition lower halves of the high values of the set were overprinted OHMS in 1908; these are unknown used and it is possible that they were unissued. A fittingly mysterious finale to a complex and fascinating series of issues!

The above items will be going under the auction hammer on 28th September at the Auction Room in 399 Strand and also available online. You can register to bid and set reminders by clicking here.


You can view the lots by booking an appointment with us and viewing them in person, or you can view the lots online by clicking here.

Call to book: +44(0)207 557 4458


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